While I congratulate the Sparrow team on moving on to bigger and better projects at Google, one thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth: the fact that the Sparrow team is no longer free to build products for itself. When I last spoke at length with Sparrow founder Dom Leca, he told me about how he left a corporate app-developing world to build something he wanted to use. "To build a better mail," he'd say. Each day Leca and friend / colleague Dinh Viet Hoa set out to build an email app they'd want to use.
It's my personal belief that the best apps, or even the best products, come from people who build things for themselves. Steve Jobs, a role model of Leca's, always believed that if you build a great product, the buyers will come in droves. And they did. Sparrow has made hundreds of thousands of dollars because the team built something they believed was "right," and something that looked fantastic. The company had just about the entire world waiting in anticipation of its iPad app, which has little chance of seeing the light of day.
"Sparrow for iPhone is $2.99 for no particular reason," Leca once told me. "It was just a feeling, like $9.99 for Sparrow on Mac. There was no market research involved." At Google, market research and data is a very major driver for change. Several times I emailed in feature requests like a "Send and Archive" button, and Dom would respond, "We want that too. It's coming :)" It was obvious that the Sparrow team was iterating as quickly as possible, not necessarily because they wanted to make a million dollars, but because they wanted a better app for themselves. All too frequently a Sparrow team member would spill the beans about a new app feature on Twitter or Tumblr because they were so excited about it.
At Google, I can't imagine that genius designer Jean-Marc Denis will any longer ask the audience what icon he should use for his next app. No longer can Leca and company beta test an app with their most dedicated and fanatical fans. As much as I love Google products, I'm afraid that the company swallowed my favorite developers much like Twitter swallowed Tweetie (coincidentally one of Leca's main inspirations in designing Sparrow). Well, the Sparrow team will certainly build some amazing things and bring "beauty" to Gmail, but they won't be unchained in building products for themselves — debatably the impetus for building great products. They'll be building things for Gmail's 425 million users, which is indeed an amazing opportunity.
In mid-March I wrote a post titled "Sparrow takes flight: how a startup built the Gmail app Google couldn't." I guess Google listened, or perhaps it was just annoyed that a portion of its ecosystem was spinning out of control. Either way, you've heard this story before, and I don't blame Google. Wonderful startups get acquired. With bated breath I wait for the day when emails from Dom cease to conclude with "Sent with Sparrow" — a badge he proudly wore. He built that thing from the ground up because he wanted it. I fear that a couple years down the road, Leca and company will be wealthy and happy, save for one thing: a mail app built just for them.
But if we're lucky, that's exactly what the next Gmail could be.